Chargers look to improve their playoff position when taking on Rams

Los Angeles, CA - November 20: Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley (center) meets with linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. (9) before the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at SoFi Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Coach Brandon Staley and linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. have helped the Chargers qualify for the playoffs with a three-game winning streak because of improved defensive play. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Chargers had lost three of four games, lost their grip on a playoff spot, lost everything but their head coach.

Oh, he was next on the list, a growing segment of the media — traditional and social — casting aside Brandon Staley in favor of the ever-lurking Sean Payton.

“Everybody hears the noise,” Chargers center Corey Linsley said. “But the whole world changes week to week in the NFL.”

It sure does, which is why, over the course of three weeks, the whole world surrounding this team changed dramatically.

The Chargers won three in a row and, in what felt like a finger snap, clinched a postseason berth as the three teams immediately behind them in the AFC standings went a combined 1-8.

The Payton talk has slowed and now the Chargers are preparing for their first playoff appearance in four years by meeting the Rams on Sunday on their shared turf of SoFi Stadium.

“With all that noise, if we had paid attention to it, we might have caved,” Linsley said. “But we had faith in everybody the whole time. We just had to keep pushing.”

The 9-6 Chargers entered Week 17 sixth in the conference and with the potential of still moving up or down one spot over their final two regular-season games.

As for their first playoff opponent, any one of the five teams ahead of them remains a possibility.

Only this much is certain: On the weekend of Jan. 14-15, the Chargers will play on the road.

This franchise last appeared in the postseason in January 2019 under former coach Anthony Lynn. Those Chargers won at Baltimore before losing at New England with a spot in the AFC title game at stake.

In his second season, Staley’s overall record is 18-14, his Chargers surging in December behind a defense that has executed his scheme in dominant style.

Staley was asked how big of a step qualifying for the playoffs is for this team and franchise.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a big step,” he said. “It’s the right step. You have to make the playoffs in order to be a world champion. I think that is a good place to start. That’s where we expected to be.”

With seeding position in play, the Chargers also have the motivation of trying to rediscover an offensive flow that has been absent lately, the outside buzz shifting to coordinator Joe Lombardi’s future.

Justin Herbert has been sacked more over the last six games than during any stretch of his young career, and the Chargers have reached the end zone only seven times in their 42 full possessions since Week 13.

“We just have to get in sync because we’re moving the football, and there are a lot of good plays in there,” Staley said. “But it’s just been up and down. It’s going to take everybody. It’s not just one person.

"I wish I could tell you that it’s just this one aspect of the offense, but it’s not. It’s all of us playing together and creating that rhythm and timing that will lead to scoring the football.”

Another Chargers’ goal over the next two games: ready edge rusher Joey Bosa for the postseason. Out since suffering a core-muscle injury in late September that required surgery, Bosa returned to practice Thursday.

He will play against the Rams — likely on a limited snap count — in an attempt to ramp up his activity heading into the regular-season finale. Bosa pronounced himself fully healthy and feeling better than he has in at least two years.

All of which added to the feel-good story that has been wrapped around this team over the last few weeks, the Chargers overcoming injuries, uneven performance and rumor to reach the place so many people forecast them to reach four months ago.

“I think our path to get here, no one could have predicted that,” Staley said. “That’s what I am happy about. We were able to earn our way there. The way that we earned our way there, I think that is significant.”

The Chargers have a chance to earn a little more. Their easiest trip to the No. 5 seed would be winning each of the next two weeks and Baltimore losing one of its final two, either at home against Pittsburgh or at Cincinnati.

In order to move up, there’s still plenty that has to go right for a team that — over three season-turning weeks — has played itself into an encouraging space.

“We got a lot of fight in us,” wide receiver Keenan Allen said. “Tough, tough group of guys. We’ve been fighting, fighting. It’s been paying off.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.